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SportsColumnistsMark La Monica

UFC 229: Conor McGregor vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov may live up to its billing as 'the biggest fight in UFC history'

UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, left, faces off

UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, left, faces off with Conor McGregor during the UFC 229 news conference at Radio City Music Hall on Sept. 20. Credit: Getty Images / Steven Ryan

The Dana White tweet announcing the start of fight week has arrived in all its extra-vowels glory.

We officially live in extraordinary times now, with each day being part of the prelude to the biggest fight in UFC history.

Ah, yes, “the biggest fight in UFC history.” It’s a great marketing phrase, not unlike “the fastest growing sport in the world,” whatever that one really means.

Conor McGregor returns to face the undefeated Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 229 on Saturday at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

Nurmagomedov sits atop the land McGregor once ruled though never ceded through any contest of physicality. Quite the opposite, actually. McGregor was removed as UFC lightweight champion in April after never having defended his title in the 18 months since he won it.  Nurmagomedov became the undisputed champion that night in Brooklyn when he beat Wantagh’s Al Iaquinta, who through a remarkable turn of events — which, just to bring things full circle, involved McGregor — ascended to a title shot a few hours after he weighed in for his prelim bout.

There was a storming of Barclays Center during that week, followed a hand truck being hurled from the arms of McGregor toward a bus that housed Nurmagomedov. (He was stopped before launching a metal barricade, but did punch the bus several times.) And then came the arrest and arraignment and bail and headlines in places that can barely spell MMA on any other day, let alone explain what the abbreviation stands for.

This fight has had its storyline for six months. That’s half a year of percolation for these blood-thirsty fighters. Half a year for the animosity to grow and spread like wild ivy vines. Half a year for tweets, sound bites, compilation videos.

So, yes, Nurmagomedov vs. McGregor may indeed be “the biggest fight in UFC history.”

Having heard that phrase so much over the years, it’s easy to toss it aside as a euphemism for “please buy this pay-per-view.”

But by nearly every metric possible, it could be feasible.

In McGregor, it has a mega-star antagonist in the fancy suits who already has changed the game. It has Nurmagomedov, cast as the good guy in everyman attire who half the people are hoping wins just because that would mean McGregor lost. The most polarizing of personalities do this: love them or hate them, you choose a side no matter what.

It has the fans in the fighters’ respective nations – and surrounding nations – on the edge of the seats, and the arena isn’t even open yet. McGregor’s fans from Ireland and elsewhere in Europe travel well. They took over the casino floor at the MGM Grand and then raged in the street on the Las Vegas Strip when McGregor won the featherweight title in 2015. In 2016, they danced and partied outside Madison Square Garden and that was just after the ceremonial weigh-ins. Nurmagomedov is from Dagestan, a Russian republic, where as a child he once wrestled a bear cub. He packed the house in Brooklyn for open workouts last April, with “Khabib” chants rattling the venue.

As of Monday afternoon, the average resale ticket price for UFC 229 was $1,279, according to SeatGeek, which aggregates secondary ticket market sites. California led among states where the most potential buyers were coming from at 22 percent,  with New York second at 13 percent.

Expect wild moments during this week at open workouts, the pre-fight news conference and the ceremonial weigh-ins in Las Vegas. Expect to see those clips in places other than where you normally consume your MMA and sports content.

When folks in the office talk to you about this fight when normally they look at their phones when you pass them in the hallway, yeah, that means it's big. When your parents ask you about the fight on Monday or Tuesday of fight week, yeah, that means it's big.

White, the UFC president, said last month that this fight was trending in the neighborhood of 2.5 million pay-per-view buys. If it reaches that mark, it’s a financial windfall for the fighters and the promotion. Even if it does half of that, it’s a monster night by today’s standards.

There’s also this to factor in when it comes to Nurmagomedov vs. McGregor: Both are remarkably talented fighters, complete with strengths and weaknesses.

For McGregor, it’s a matter of how he will handle Nurmagomedov’s superb grappling skills. When McGregor has struggled in the octagon – albeit very rarely – it’s been against wrestlers and top-level ground game fighters. But he can strike with the best of them. In fact, he may the best of them.

For Nurmagomedov, it’s a matter of being able to withstand McGregor’s striking enough to get him to the ground. Nurmagomedov walked through Edson Barboza’s strikes two fights prior, and many opponents barely can walk at all after getting hit by Barboza.

“Biggest fight in UFC history,” huh? Yes, it very well may be.

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